“Backsliders”

What makes these buggers tick?

You’d think they’d be a little more grateful;

Us, giving it to them.

Why go there, when they’d lose all this?

The electricity, quinine and Handel.

 

The jungles aren’t any safer than our jails,

Plus the cholera, humidity and snakes.

But they’re ultimately savages, the rational doesn’t hold.

I suppose they like it out there… makes them feel something;  

 

Anyway send the garrisons more guns;

Bibles and cheap booze to the civil stations.

Vodka and Ramadan

So Ramadan 2016 had just started and I was in this really shoddy bar which didn’t look so shoddy from the outside. I was once again fooled by that bright coloured pre-fabricated panelling which is ubiquitous these days. I stepped into the dive, sat at a table and ordered vodka with some lime slices. It was a little after 3 pm on a Thursday in Calcutta. This is probably one of the joys of urban existence that I have somehow got around to cherishing: the empty bar. To sit in a quiet, undisturbed space with only the background banter of waiters with booze on call – these are the hallmarks of civilization! After a near hour-long dip into this oasis of tranquillity, I was joined by other weary travelers. A couple, the man had a skull-cap on and his companion was a woman, probably out on a date. They ordered some food and the man asked for a beer. I did not really give any of this much consideration.

In another half hour or so, another couple walked in. The men glanced at each and apparently knew one another. They exchanged a bout of words which I was not able to discern. I took all this in with long sips of vodka. After some time, I noticed that the men seemed to be annoyed with each other. It is that strange malaise which afflicts men in bars whereby they start shouting incoherently about something, their eyes wild and unfocused, their heads bobbing side-to-side. Sometimes there is foam at the mouth but rarely.

At first I was bemused and unable to understand what exactly was going on. Then it began to dawn on me. The man with the ‘topi’ was obviously breaking his fast before time and this somehow irked the other man. The fact that he was doing so with beer must have been a further point of anxiety. I suspected the other was also Muslim and as I mentioned earlier acquainted with the ‘offender’. It was quite interesting listening to them. The aggrieved party told the other to at least hide his ‘topi’ if he was going to insult his faith when he came to such places, the offender countered the attacker by asking him why he was there himself if he was so pious. The man maintained that he was there to simply keep his lady friend company. The women, I could see, were enjoying the show while merrily chomping down on chicken legs. They were both non-Muslims, I suspect.

“The one above knows”, said the attacker as he pointed to the sky. “So let him judge”, was the reply. Now when I think about it – why did that man have his skullcap on? Did he simply forget to take it off in the excitement of going on a date? Or did he do it intentionally? Was it some sort of a performance on his part? Maybe he just naively assumed that no other Muslim would bump into him in such a place and at such a time in the year? These deductions were quite fascinating to think about and I began to also construct a life for him beyond the bar. I was a little drunk and imagined him as a rebel who drank regularly, smoked weed openly and dated only girls outside of his own religion. Later at home, I re-read an article about how a Muslim man and a Hindu woman had been too frightened to register their marriage for fear of repercussions, somewhere in rural UP.

People cannot believe there is any love in such unions, they believe only in agendas. We have become objects with no will outside of stereotype. Worse is we submit ourselves to these ideas eventually, even when as children we fought hard against them. We slowly subdue ourselves and perpetuate the crude sketches, lewd jokes taught to us by our parents, who in turn learned it from theirs. We have invented and sustained a tradition of hatred.

Could our hero in the bar shake aside such reductions? Would he enthral his detractors with his wit or show up their poor reasoning with his own? Or maybe he is just lying drunk in his bed at home, having nightmares about the argument in the bar and acknowledging his fault? Maybe he will turn as well, in his pursuit of becoming ‘respectable’ and ‘grown up’? We will never know for sure.

The Minority Question in Khasi Jaintia Hills

The water seems to have cleared up a bit and so maybe it is the right moment to dip one’s feet in the pond – unsettle things. There has been a large amount of correspondence in the Shillong Times – back and forth – around the issue of whether our local “indigenous faiths” (and those following them) should qualify for “minority” status. If they attain the desired outcome, possibly through reservation, then the perks and advantages attached to “minority” would be open to them (more so than before). So there have been various quarters that have taken this up as an issue for debate. There are some who have straight away rubbished such claims, and there are others who have taken to defending them. Few have said that there is no need for ‘reservation’ because there is no such discrimination against the NiamTre or Niam Tynrai followers. This is hardly correct (more on this later). Still others have got around to philosophizing and discussing the nature of religion, definitions of faith and other stuff. Of them, I ask: whether they are religions or faiths or whatever, do we simply belittle the sentiments of a people who feel slighted? Do people care about the definitions or the real material conditions that they encounter in their day-to-day life?

So the key word here is “discrimination”. This main point of contention is very fascinating for our particular context. We have always, supposedly, been at the receiving end of the stick and our entire political discourse is premised on the presumption of “defense” except for this case in question. In January, I along with a researcher friend, Bhogtoram Mawroh, travelled to Mawsynram, in the company of some pastors. As we made our way along the Lyngiong- Tyrsad road, one of them turned to the other and said “Ithuh phi mo, ki jaka bym pat long Kristan” (you can recognize, places which are non-Christian, by the way they look). My friend looked at me, smirked and shook his head. He did this because we had actually talked about something along those lines much before that moment. Much of our respective works involve travelling to and visiting villages in Khasi, Jaintia Hills. Therefore, it quickly dawned on us that development patterns (roads, electricity, sanitation) within these parts of the state seemed more inclined towards one particular demographic than others (namely Khasi Christians). We are currently pursuing means to validate this supposition. This is not in any way a mission to ‘politicize’ “inclusion/exclusion,” it is for the sake of knowledge.

There are many reasons why the ‘indigenous faith’ followers might be sidelined. The major and most obvious one is because they are fewer in number than the Christians. A political representative such as an MLA would sadly be more inclined to help realize the aspirations and ambitions of the majority. Even if she/he belonged to the minority group, ultimately the majority would have to be satisfied if she/he were interested in being re-elected for the next term. To change this would be far and away an extremely arduous but necessary task. However, even if a more “representative” representation were achieved, the systemic discrimination would be harder still to overcome. How would one begin to confront the privileges accumulated over decades that have been enjoyed by the Christians? How would one begin to unwind the ‘power’ cliques and political “spaces” that have become their prerogative? Would a form of reservation really do anything to uplift the plight of the ‘indigenous faith’ followers? Would it be constructive in the long run, or would it tear our community asunder?

The conclusion I surmise is that this is essentially a critique on the very idea of “reservation” itself. I am not against the idea, I think it is absolutely essential for a more just and egalitarian society. However, even as we ‘rejoice’ in the status of being a Scheduled Tribe (ST) we must acknowledge the bitter reality that most of the benefits and advantages of being ST are enjoyed by the middle and upper classes. I doubt that the poorer sections of our society, and especially those in the villages, can claim to have gained much from an ST/SC certificate. This is the danger too with the current plea by the Sein Raij and co. I am sure they would have thought hard upon this as well. If the minority benefits all go to a Niam Tynrai businessman’s family in Shillong and not villagers like those in Lyngiong-Tyrsad then it would have failed in its objective, in my opinion.

I think that the way forward is to reach out to one another, calling out progressive Christians and non-Christians alike to come together and attempt to alleviate the suffering of others. Orthodoxy, on all sides, is the enemy. In this regard, we have to grow bonds stronger than the religious ones. Pressure and lobbying groups that can bring people together rather than pull them apart should be encouraged. For this to happen, we need dialogue. It might be painful, embarrassing even but it must be initiated. We do not need “outsider” organizations to come and perform charity puja. In our need for political allies and powerful friends we seem to forget that we have more in common with each other (Christian and non-Christian) than Right wing nut-jobs who seek to further widen the schism. This is as true for the Hindutva as it is for the Evangelical Fundamentalists. The tragedy could be that these characters might actually come together to vilify and demonize Muslims (the “dreaded” Bangladeshis) O what a big joke that would be! That cannot be allowed to transpire without resistance.

Frankly speaking, the Niam Tre/Tynrai already have a trump card. On the cultural front, they have won and politics and culture are intertwined. Unless they approach the matter with open-mindedness and self-criticism, Christian Khasis can never truly be “Khasi” again. There are many who would raise objections to this statement and they have interesting points to make regarding definitions of identity, language, customs etc. My point, however, is that from within a conservative or orthodox Christianity (which is most of our Christianity!) we cannot ever (through fear or censure) really know what it is like to be “Khasi.” I realize that many might have problems with my investing so much authority with the Niam Tre et al. After all, are they not also modern? Have they, also, not been changed by the times? How could they survive if they were static all this while? The Niam Tre et al have undoubtedly altered as well but in terms of cultural luggage (the folktales, the beliefs, the songs, dances) they are probably our best custodians. They could be actively teaching the Christians a few things about our common past and maybe with that our collective futures would be clearer, brighter. There would be no need for “defense” or preservation then. They can be the initiators of real ‘growth’, but it must be inclusive.

The Khasis as Hindus

Perhaps this article is ill-timed. Perhaps in the current scenario with various Far Right groups actively seeking a Hindutva agenda it is not the best time to be writing things which they could use for their own benefit. This is particularly true after the recent maiden procession carried out by the RSS in Shillong which has evoked so much reaction. However, these events cannot forestall the need for articulation. It waits for no one. With this in the background, I would like to present an argument that has been brooding in my head for a while now.

I have often heard it repeated over and over again especially by the Christian clergy and its fraternity that Khasis were/are not Hindus. They often say, in a very vague language, that essentially we worshipped One God (U Nongbuh U Nongthaw) through His “ambassadors” here on Earth. So in a sense ‘Lei Shyllong and other ancient deities might be suitably placed within a pre-Christian monotheism. This seems contradictory in more than one way. The most obvious is that it seems the Khasis are the only ones who profess this. Other tribes around us who have undoubtedly influenced and been influenced by the Khasis worship multiple gods not a God – these are full framed figures, resplendent in their distinct tribal garb, not simply allusions to a one Universal. This aspect is something we need to interrogate further because this pre-Christian “Christianity (monotheism)” appears to be revisionist. The frequency of the articulation of this idea among the Christians – especially Catholic priests – seems to betray its origins and motives. After all, it is much easier to convert people by drawing comparisons to that which they are already acquainted with: that the introduction of new gods is in reality just a change in nomenclature and ritual, that essentially they have always been worshipping the same God.

I am personally interested in the fact if the Khasis claim to be a matrilineal culture/society, why is U Nongbuh Nongthaw (The Keeper/ Creator) a male deity? Shouldn’t ‘he’ be a ‘she’? I realize that this is not necessarily an air-tight hypothesis but humour me. The Pnars and Bhois, interestingly, seem to place more importance on female divinities – the goddess Riang Khangnoh, goddess Myntdu, goddess Lukhmi are far more popular than any male counterparts. And they are not simply goddesses of the homestead either, they can wonder outside from spring to spring, blessing the families that stay along their path, they can serve as guardians (‘lei khyrdop) protecting Jowai like Myntdu does and they can also guarantee a good harvest like Lukhmi. They seem to have more character, more nuance than the Nongbuh Nongthaw. To simplify the pre-Christian era has been one of the major projects of the missionaries of various faiths. These include the Christians and the Hindus as well. Both have, in their own manner, drawn attention away from the differences and harped on the similarities that were allegedly shared. The Christians have been vague about it while the Hindus have embraced the ‘nitty gritties’ of the idiosyncratic Khasi myth pantheon as their own.

When we talk of Hinduism we have been warned time and again about the dangers of ‘centralizing’ it: that there are, in fact, many Hinduisms. This is a convenient starting point for interrogating the Hindu processes that went on in the Khasi and Jaintia Hills before the coming of Christianity. To simply state and defend the “Khasis were not Hindus” tenet with no evidence except popular belief is bad science. On the contrary, there is substantial material evidence to support the claim that they were, indeed, Hindus. In Syndai, you will find a large Ganesha sculpture – among others – of some age carved into a large rock; the local people call it ‘U Khmi’ (interestingly the word means “earthquake” in Pnar). Dawki has a number of old rock carvings which seem to be influenced by Hindu traditions. Legend has it that the Kamakhya Temple in Assam was originally a sacred Khasi site – a point acknowledged by temple management in publications – where a type of mother goddess supposedly resided. She was called “Ka Mei Kha” by the Khasis, which over time morphed into Kamakhya. The phonological shift is noteworthy. Nartiang and Iale Falls were important locations for Shakti human sacrifices. The former is still an important shrine for pilgrims to visit. Mahadek,also known as Laittyra, was called that because of the presence of a Mahadev temple within the village. Mawsynram still draws a decent number of Hindu pilgrims who suffer the horrible roads in order to perform puja at the mawjymbuin cave, which they consider to be a shiv-ling. Interestingly, these sites are all near borders – either with Assam or Bangladesh. There are undoubtedly other similar sites and shrines throughout these hills and valleys which await re-discovery.

Beyond the ostensible spaces, there are also a number of cultural borrowings that seem to have been directly influenced by Hinduism. This should not surprise (nor anger) us. The North East is basically a land bridge (possibly one of the most important in history). Materials, skills, ideas have flowed through this region for a very long time from East to West and vice versa. The fairly recent isolationism and the subsequent xenophobia should not fool us into believing otherwise. Many important festivals like Behdeinkhlam, Lukhmi have strong links with larger Vedic currents. The references to Lukhmi/Lukhimai are quite clearly to a ‘tribalised’ Lakshmi. During Behdeinkhlam, the rot (tower-like structures made of wood, bamboo) must be cast away after the religious festivities are over. This is interesting because the worship of the (non-Classical) Hindu deity Jagannath (Odisha mostly) also involves similar structures which are called rath (chariot). Note the similar names. The casting away of the rot is akin to the casting away of the idols at Durga Puja after their roles as ‘cleansers’ have been fulfilled. Even the ritualistic animal sacrifices at Shad Pomblang might be re-seen in the light of other festivals like Gadhimai, Bali Jatra and others. When I was to be married, there was some discussion about putting up banana stalks in front of the entry way which is a very common Hindu practice – this in spite of the fact that my in-laws’ household is almost exclusively Christian. This ultimately did not happen but it was interesting nonetheless.

As I had mentioned earlier, this piece might be misconstrued for obvious political purposes. I am not interested in privileging the mainstream Hindu tradition over the smaller traditions. Further, I hope the reader does not think that I am attempting to locate a “centre” from which all Hindu authority stems out of (which is what Hindutva groups seek). This automatically assumes the position that the ‘tribal’ people are always the ones who “take” ideas and concepts and divorces them of a knowing and conscious exchange with Hindu “missionaries”, maybe even resistance to them. The control room is not in Gujarat, Maharashtra or Ayodhya. If anything, we see the reverse, that in fact, Hinduism has always been shifting and ‘de-centering’ itself according to contexts and areas. The question “were/are Khasis, Hindus” is inextricably linked to the notion of who a Hindu is in the first place. The flexible and assimilative nature of Hinduism ensured its success from Cambodia and Bali through to Kabul etc, it spread through a huge geographic expanse. However, this strength, this mutability is also what permits the Far Right groups to go about proclaiming everything and everyone as being Hindu, everything from “proper” religions like Buddhism and Jainism to smaller belief systems like Niam Khasi (Meghalaya), Donyi Polo (Arunachal Pradesh) and Meiteism (Manipur). Their success in redefining the latter practice as their own is something the Niam Khasi followers should be wary of. Ultimately, religion is less important than politics.